diamond geezer

 Thursday, March 20, 2014

post-Olympic update
The VeloPark cometh

They said the Olympic Park would fully reopen in Spring 2014. Today Spring 2014 is finally here, and the Olympic Park is already well on the way to being re-accessible. The northern half reopened last Summer, you may remember, and now gradually the barriers are falling away in the southern half. Officially the opening date is April 5th, a mere sixteen days hence, with the Lee Valley VeloPark open for business a little sooner. But I went for a long wander round last weekend, and was faintly amazed by how much was already accessible. Let's start with the cycling.

You've already missed the first post-Games cycling event, and this weekend there's another. Sport Relief is dropping in on Friday for the telly, and on Sunday for a participatory sponsored challenge. Proper sessions for clubs and individuals begin on 31st March, and some are even reasonably priced. But last weekend you could have ridden around some of the new facilities for nothing... not because they were open, but because nobody was looking.

The Velodrome: I think it's true to say that Londoners, or at least visitors to the Games, have taken the Velodrome very much to heart. It's sleek and graceful, and already has a crisp-based nickname which is generally a sign of architectural acceptance. For the last eighteen months the building has been fenced off, but those fences are now down and it's possible to walk freely all the way around the perimeter at podium level. So people did. They wandered up the steps and they circumnavigated the ellipse, staring down over the surrounding facilities on the way. Across the A12 towards the multitudinous rooftops of Leyton, across the void where the Basketball arena used to be, and across the main body of the Park towards the stadium. Some cycled around the podium instead, occasionally pausing to stare up at the gorgeous ribbed wood finish (24000 pieces of custom milled, PEFC-certified western red cedar, if you're interested). But mainly they poked their noses up against the glass to try to peer inside the building, as evidenced by a line of sweaty nasal imprints about five feet off the ground. Only a few choice spots had a clear line of sight that missed the back of the grandstands, and some of those revealed little more than the back of the wheelchair seating area. At one point a pop-up refreshment option was plainly visible, piped-up to several barrels of Meantime London Lager, alongside a cart for Mom's Huge Mean & Meaty Bad Boy Hot Dogs. Having been inside for the Paralympics I'm aware that peering from outside gives no proper idea of the impressive space hollowed out within. But you could well be inside very shortly, once the airlock doors are opened, soon.

Road circuit: This looks highly impressive, a one mile circuit that spins round the back of the Velodrome and out across the Lea. The tarmac strip is broad enough that you could easily mistake it for a proper road - all the better for overtaking during any future race. Judges have been provided with a smart little timing cabin, in wood to match the Velodrome nextdoor, and accessed from a side door via a convenient set of steps. The circuit has three arms, each of which can be coned off as necessary to create courses of different lengths. One loop rolls round the BMX track, another (much shorter) nudges into the park proper, and the third rides over the river. Alas the twin bridges are rather utilitarian, presumably for health and safety reasons, but they do strike a major duff note amongst the general elegance of the remainder of the cycling facilities. The whole circuit's floodlit, or at least it has streetlamps along it for all-year use. And the course is also mostly fenced off, because you wouldn't want bikes crashing into spectators, or visitors in the Park accidentally wandering into the path of a peloton. But not fully fenced off. In particular there's easy access from the perimeter of the Velodrome and the piazza below, and a few nudged metal barriers made encroachment easier still. A mixed bag of weekend cyclists slipped onto the proper track for a complete circuit, or two, perhaps amazed that nobody was there to stop them. Round the outer limits, across the Lea bridge, even completely the wrong way round a loop, and not always in an entirely athletic way. I can't guarantee access will be quite so simple over the next few days, but bring your wheels and you could find out.

BMX track: I loved the BMX racing when I came to watch an Olympic test event three years ago. Now anyone with sufficient competence can come and experience pretty much the same course, except toned down for mere regular mortals. As in 2012 the course resembles a giant sandpit, with tarmac at the start and on the fiercer bends. Inbetween are four long straights of bumps, some high and uneven, others lower and more rhythmic for speed. Expect rough and tumble and much falling off, at what's easily the hippest of the four cycling facilities in the new Velopark. It's also, I suspect, the most easily destroyed. Any significant rainfall will turn the bumps to mush, so it's going to be difficult to keep the BMX track in peak condition. At the Games an army of volunteers were ready with plastic protective sheeting, but they won't be around on a damp April evening should a downpour ensue.

Mountain bike track: This is definitely the most accessibly fun part of QEOP's cycling quartet. Some considerable amount of the northern end of the park has been given over to hillocky, if not mountainous, terrain, laid out on either side of the A12 dual carriageway. This is freshly-landscaped stuff, with completely different contours to what was here during the Games, and much has been crammed into borderline areas of otherwise unusable land. The main circuit (that's the blue line on this map) is suitable for beginners, but at several points rather harder tracks branch off up steeper slopes. Red-grade routes provide greater switchback challenge, while three separate parts of the course offer black-grade detours to test the sternest wheels. The tracks are narrow, approximately goat-width, so overtaking isn't often going to be an option. Thus far only one short track is accessible, unofficially at least, leading from the road track near the Velodrome down to the banks of the Lea. A tiny sign at the bottom attempts to remind pedestrians not to enter the tempting ascent, while another bans cyclists too because this is the exit from a one-way path. Instead bikes are meant to zigzag down between the saplings and across a rumble strip of paving blocks, before whizzing onto the main riverside footpath. That's blocked by a metal barrier at present, under the gaze of a watchful (but rather bored-looking) workman. But come Saturday week a big triangular sign that reads WARNING Mountain Bike CROSSING will have to make do, and cyclists should expect to meet unwelcome human obstructions on certain shared parts of the route. A pay and ride session could set you back as little as £4 but my hunch is, as I saw at the weekend, that you could probably slip onto some of the the course for nothing.

Cycling through the rest of the northern half of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is always free. I saw more cyclists than usual out and about at the weekend, possibly because the weather was good, or possibly because more and more people are discovering it's an interesting place to ride. This isn't yet somewhere you can ride for a long time without hitting a dead end or repeating where you've been, but a few pleasant circuits are possible with semi-challenging changes of height, if vaguely strenuous exercise in a scenic location is your thing. A family-friendly cycling destination, I'd say, with all the attractions of the Tumbling Bay playground and Timber Lodge cafe for when small legs get tired.

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